The failure of the US missile defense test for shooting down mock long-range Iranian missiles over the Pacific on Sunday, Jan. 31 – due to radar malfunction – resonated loudly in the Middle East, coming as it did just as President Barack Obama had started beefing up the US military Gulf presence and its Gulf allies' defenses against Iran.
"The Sea-Based X-Band radar did not perform as expected," said the Defense Department in Washington. The reference was to the SBX radar which is a major component of the US defense array against hostile long-range missiles with potential chemical, biological or nuclear warheads. The mock target, launched from the Marshall Islands, and the interceptor from California performed as expected in America's first test of its defenses against long-range missile attack. But the sophisticated radar system failed.
This system is a vital component in the accelerated US deployment of Gulf defenses (see separate item on its rationale) against possible Iranian missile attacks, in step with Israel's military preparations for a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel has been banking heavily on the X-Band radar for repulsing retaliatory missile attacks from Iran and Syria. The system was installed in Israel towards the end of George W. Bush's White House tenure in November 2008 and deployed at a closed ex-territorial enclave inside the big Israeli southern air base at Nevatim.
It was configured to give early warning signals of Iranian missile take-offs for striking US bases in the Middle East and/or Israel. Israel Patriot and Arrow anti-missile missiles batteries were supposed to pick up the signals in time to intercept the incoming Iranian missiles.
This defense system was designed to give Israel at least five minutes' warning of incoming hostile missiles and a brief space to run for shelter.
Simulated real test fails to replicate dry run
On July 22, 2009, Israel and the United States tested their jointly-developed Arrow 2 missile interceptor on the Californian coast. According to US sources, three U.S. missile interceptors and an upgraded Arrow 2 took part in the test. The Pentagon said missiles dropped from aircraft and a C-17 military transport were successfully tracked and the exchange of data took place in real time between the US missile defense sites and the targeting center.
The exception was the Arrow system, which did not pick up the incoming data and therefore failed in its function.
Five months ago, the US and Israel conducted the Juniper Cobra 10 maneuver, their biggest joint war game ever, in northern, central and southern Israel. Together they drilled defense systems against a combined Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah attack, testing in particular the coordinated interchanges between US and Israeli anti-ballistic radar systems.
Both partners came out of the drill highly satisfied with how well their systems integrated; both commanders lauded the progress made toward building a workable shield against Iranian missile attack.
At the same time, the exercise was a dry run; a mock Iranian missile strike was not part of it.
When last Sunday, the US tested its interception capabilities against a mock Iranian long-range missile, the result was failure.
That same day, Deputy Commander of the United States European Command (EUCOM), Lt. Gen. John D. Gardner arrived in Israel. During the visit, Lt. Gen. Gardner met with the Deputy IDF Chief of the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz, Head of the IDF Strategic and Planning Branch, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, and additional senior officials. They discussed several strategic matters of common interest and the visitor received intelligence and strategic briefings.
New base out of Hamas range
Later on, Gen. Gardner visited the X-Band radar station at the US defense installation in Mount Keren, a key component of the joint Israel-US active defense deployment.
That visit pointed up two new developments, which are reported here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources:
One, he took into account that the Israel-based US radar system, when it was put through its paces over the Pacific on Sunday, did not prove its workability.
Two, the X-Band radar station had been quietly moved from the Nevatim base to a new home. It was no longer lodged inside an Israeli base, but had won its own custom-built facility on Mount Keren further south. It was the first time Israel has permitted the United States to establish on its soil an autonomous military facility under exclusive American command.
Mount Keren, 720 meters high and located some 28 miles south of Beersheba, 12 miles east of the Egyptian border, is situated in one of the most desolate parts of Israel. But its strategic location is exceptional, providing monitoring access through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf all the way to Iran.
Another reason for the relocation of the facility was the outbreak of Israel's Gaza campaign Operation Cast Lead in Gaza a year ago. During the fighting, Hamas was ordered from Tehran to keep on trying to target the Nevatim base with Grad missiles. All its attempts fell short.
Israeli and US intelligence experts take it for granted that in a fresh round of hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Strip, which could erupt as a result of an Israeli attack on Iran, Hamas will try and hit the key radar station.
At Mount Keren, the radar facility would be out for range of the ballistics Hamas presently has in hand.